Office politics #6

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By John Nicholson and Jane Clarke


In the last couple of years, the world has gone mad on teamwork. Perhaps you preferred the days when you worked on your own, got through your in-tray and left at the end of the day without worrying about others' incompetence. Now the boss is forever calling on you to do things on behalf of the team. He's got sporting metaphors coming out of his ears. Why can't he see that David Beckham has it easy? He only has to think about Manchester United - and the England squad from time to time. You belong to more teams than he has team members! One minute it's the grading committee; the next it's the systems implementation group - the "team" is different every day. So how can you get the most out of these different groups, juggle the demands they place on you, and accomplish more than you could on your own?

Know what teams you're in

Now that work is increasingly organised around processes and projects, it's quite usual to belong to many teams - with as many bosses to answer to. Most of us don't even realise the number of teams we play an active role in. If you want to frighten yourself, list all the people who have a legitimate call on your time. Then add the projects and day-to-day activities you're involved with. Think about what others will be relying on you to do, where all the activities fit into the greater scheme of things, and what the priorities should be.

If you want a reputation for being organised, and someone who can be relied upon, planning is the key. You need to bear all your projects in mind when you are organising your week. Understand what you need to do, for whom and by when. This helps you to be better organised and juggle the priorities, and also increases your bargaining power: if a particular boss makes demands which you know you can't meet, you'll have the ammunition to negotiate.

Know what the roles are

Individual roles have become so much less clear. Many team members go to all the meetings, but don't really understand why they're there. It's essential that every member knows what is asked of them and how they contribute to overall objectives. Examine your roles - and those of others. If you don't think there's this degree of clarity, point it out.

But it's more than just performing tasks. Most successful teams have a blend of personalities and different approaches. There will be the off- the-wall individual who's good at coming up with ideas; the one who's in touch with how the group is feeling; the one who can make the most of everyone's skills; the one who is quick to spot the downside, helping to avoid disasters - and so on. The trick is to understand these different strengths and get the most from them. But people with ways different to our own can drive us mad with frustration. Examine what others do and try to see the benefits associated with their approach. When someone is irritating, remind yourself of what they bring to the party.

Know what the rules are

Successful teams make the time to agree ground rules: the rights and duties of team members, and how they want to work together. This applies not just when the group is sitting around a table, but also when you're back at your own desk, or out in the field - eg you may agree to back - publicly and convincingly - any decision made by the team, even if you initially argued against it. If you don't have a code of practice, do yourself a favour and dedicate the next meeting to drawing one up.

Once you're clear what needs to be delivered, understand others' roles, and have persuaded everyone to follow a single set of rules, you should be able to exploit the proposition underpinning all successful teams: none of us is as clever as all of usn

John Nicholson and Jane Clarke are directors of Nicholson McBride, the business psychology consultancy.